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In mathematics, the four color theorem, or the four color map theorem states that, given any separation of a plane into contiguous regions, producing a figure called a map, no more than four colors are required to color the regions of the map so that no two adjacent regions have the same color. Two regions are called adjacent if they share a common boundary that is not a corner, where corners are the points shared by three or more regions. For example, Utah and Arizona are adjacent, but Utah and New Mexico, which only share a point that also belongs to Arizona and Colorado, are not.

The following discussion is a summary based on the introduction to Appel and Haken's book Every Planar Map is Four Colorable (Appel & Haken 1989). Although flawed, Kempe's original purported proof of the four color theorem provided some of the basic tools later used to prove it. The explanation here is reworded in terms of the modern graph theory formulation above. Kempe's argument goes as follows. First, if planar regions separated by the graph are not triangulated, i.e. do not have exactly three edges in their boundaries, we can add edges without introducing new vertices in order to make every region triangular, including the unbounded outer region. If this triangulated graph is colorable using four colors or less, so is the original graph since the same coloring is valid if edges are removed. So it suffices to prove the four color theorem for triangulated graphs to prove it for all planar graphs, and without loss of generality we assume the graph is triangulated. Kempe also showed correctly that G can have no vertex of degree 4. As before we remove the vertex v and four-color the remaining vertices. If all four neighbors of v are different colors, say red, green, blue, and yellow in clockwise order, we look for an alternating path of vertices colored red and blue joining the red and blue neighbors. Such a path is called a Kempe chain. There may be a Kempe chain joining the red and blue neighbours, and there may be a Kempe chain joining the green and yellow neighbours, but not both, since these two paths would necessarily intersect, and the vertex where they intersect cannot be collared. Suppose it is the red and blue neighbours that are not chained together. Explore all vertices attached to the red neighbour by red-blue alternating paths, and then reverse the colours red and blue on all these vertices. The result is still a valid four-colouring, and v can now be added back and collared red.

We can simplify the discussion and take into account the fact that the graph must be a planar one. Euler's formula states that if a finite, connected, planar graph is drawn in the plane without any edge intersections, and v is the number of vertices, e is the number of edges and f is the number of faces (regions bounded by edges, including the outer, infinitely-large region), then

v e + f = 2.
As an illustration, in the butterfly graph given above, v = 5, e = 6 and f = 3. If the second graph is redrawn without edge intersections, it has v = 4, e = 6 and f = 4. In general, if the property holds for all planar graphs of f faces, any change to the graph that creates an additional face while keeping the graph planar would keep v e + f an invariant. Since the property holds for all graphs with f = 2, by mathematical induction it holds for all cases. Euler's formula can also be proved as follows: if the graph isn't a tree, then remove an edge which completes a cycle. This lowers both e and f by one, leaving v e + f constant. Repeat until the remaining graph is a tree; trees have v = e + 1 and f = 1, yielding v e + f = 2. i.e. the Euler characteristic is 2.

Problems Using the Four Color Theorem

This activity is about coloring, but don't think it's just kid's stuff. This investigation will lead to one of the most famous theorems of mathematics and some very interesting results.

Problem 1. Have you ever colored in a pattern and wondered how many colors you need to
use? Two sections that share a common edge cannot be colored the same! Having a common corner is OK, just not an edge. Let's start with a simple pattern like a group of nine squares:

Problem 2. How about this one? How many colors do you need this time?
But you couldn't color this pattern with just two colors. Can you see why?

Problem 3. Let's try another. How many colors do you need this time?
Nine? Eight? Seven? Six? Five? Four?

Problem 4 (Maps). This could get a bit more

interesting if we wanted to color a map. A map may not work when a country has two or more separate areas, such as Alaska (part of the US, but with Canada inbetween) or Kaliningrad (part of Russia, but also not joined). But let's ignore that here. Here is a map of Europe:

Try coloring in the map and see what is the fewest number of colors you need. We will start by colouring Romania and France.

Problem 5 (Game). Problem 5 is in fact a game based on the four colour theorem and has multiple
levels each with a different colouring puzzle. Here are some other interactive problems:


Allaire, F. (1997), "Another proof of the four colour theoremPart I", Proceedings, 7th Manitoba Conference on Numerical Mathematics and Computing, Congr. Numer. Appel, Kenneth; Haken, Wolfgang (1977), "Every Planar Map is Four Colorable Part I. Discharging", Illinois Journal of Mathematics Appel, Kenneth; Haken, Wolfgang; Koch, John (1977), "Every Planar Map is Four Colorable Part II. Reducibility", Illinois Journal of Mathematics